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The Scent of Betrayal

The Scent of Betrayal

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The Scent of Betrayal

513 pagine
6 ore
Dec 17, 2015


1795. The discovery of an abandoned Spanish merchant ship off the coast of America plunges the Ludlows into a far-reaching conspiracy fueled by jealousy, ambition and nationalistic fervor. The Bucephalas lies trapped under the gaping muzzles of the 32-pounder Spanish guns of New Orleans’ harbor fort. It quickly becomes clear that the corridors of the governor's residence are just as busy with treachery, double-dealing, and murder as the back alleys of the sweltering city outside. Harry Ludlow must win freedom for his ship in a deadly game played out in the dark woods of the American hinterland.

Dec 17, 2015

Informazioni sull'autore

David Donachie was born in Edinburgh in 1944. He has always had an abiding interest in the naval history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as the Roman Republic, and, under the pen-name of Jack Ludlow, has published a number of historical adventure novels. David lives in Deal with his partner, the novelist Sarah Grazebrook.

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The Scent of Betrayal - David Donachie



HARRY LUDLOW wasn’t one to get inebriated often. But celebrating Oliver Pollock’s birthday had led to a bout of drinking that got out of hand, and an extended period of sleeping ashore in this cramped lodging house had dulled the sixth sense that every ship’s master needed as a guard against sudden danger. Pender, who’d expected his Captain’s eyes to open as soon as the door creaked, was obliged to throw the shutters wide, allowing the first bright streaks of Caribbean sunlight to stream in through the window and fill the sparsely furnished room. That wasn’t enough, it didn’t even break the rhythm of the loud snores. He had to shake the recumbent figure very hard before he got any kind of response. Half awake, and confused, he was slow to comprehend what Pender was saying.

‘Who?’ Harry croaked.

‘Your American friend, Pollock,’ Pender repeated slowly. ‘Who was matchin’ you jug for jug last night. The drink didn’t seem to affect him in the same manner as you. He set sail in the Daredevil at the full and not a hint as to where he was headin’. I don’t recall him saying anything about shifting out of here in the middle of the night.’

Harry shook his head very slowly.

‘Coffee, I think,’ said Pender, making for the door.

Harry tried to say gallons, but the word wouldn’t come. He lay back on the wide double bed and closed his eyes, rubbing his temples in a vain attempt to dull the ache of what promised to be a serious hangover. His brain was slow to clear, the events of the previous night, as well as the last few weeks, unfolding in a series of confused, non-chronological images. Five men; great quantities of food; endless toasts. The scarred face of Nathan Caufield, native of Sag Harbour and former Loyalist, bridling at any reference to the American Revolution. The Long Island sailor’s seeming indifference when his son, Matthew, in the company of James Ludlow, slipped away to yet another assignation at Madame Leon’s bawdy-house.

The impression existed that for all he’d consumed in food and wine, which was considerable, he shouldn’t be feeling this bad. Harry Ludlow would never claim to be a trencherman of the first rank, but in a world where no meal was considered memorable if it wasn’t huge, where drink was taken regularly and copiously, he could recall few occasions when he’d felt as weak as he did now. His next attempt to speak died as Pender returned, no more than a rasp in his bone-dry throat. Handed a pitcher of water, he drank from it greedily, allowing a fair quantity to spill over the front of his shirt. He looked down.

‘God in heaven,’ he sighed, at the realisation that he’d probably been carried to bed, ‘I’m still in my breeches and boots.’

Raising his eyes he observed that he wasn’t alone in his distress. Pender’s face was tinged with grey. The eyes, steady as they contemplated his plight, had a red, bloodshot rim round each pupil, and his voice had a weary quality.

‘Since you was dead to the world, I decided to partake of a bit of a gargle on my own account. I was on my way back here when one of the fishermen told me about Mr Pollock.’

Another image floated into his mind. Of Pender, cold sober in the background, stepping forward only occasionally to top up a tankard that wasn’t full to the rim. It must have been some ‘gargle’ he’d crammed into the time he had left.

‘Beats me how Pollock managed it,’ Pender added, ‘given what he put away. He must have been the very devil to rouse out. There’s no way he could have walked to the quayside, that’s for certain.’

Harry, with a deliberate air, swung his feet onto the floor, an action which produced an alarming stab of pain in his head. His nostrils picked up the odour of coffee long before the serving girl set the tray she was carrying on the table. Pender had a cup poured and in his master’s hands before her footsteps faded. He drank the coffee gratefully, then hauled himself to his feet. By the open window he could see out over the whole of St Croix harbour. Several ships, including Daredevil, had slipped their moorings during the hours of darkness. He struggled to recall the names of others but his hangover defeated every effort in that line and he turned his attention to his own ship, Bucephalas, knowing that the mere sight of her clean lines would lift his spirits.

No man sailing as a privateer could ask for a better vessel. Over a hundred foot long and well armed, she lay by the quay, still handsome despite the staging round her stern. The work he’d ordered done on her was all but complete. Today he intended to set about removing the mess the shipwrights had made of his pristine deck. Normally a man who harried such people, he’d been content to let them work at their own pace. The topsail schooner Ariadne, which he’d escorted here, was in need of greater repair: as well as substantial damage to her upper works, her timbers had suffered from worm and weed. Hauled over by the nearest stretch of beach, she looked forlorn in the clean morning light. Both ships had been damaged in a recent battle with two French frigates and here, safe in the Danish harbour, the local shipwrights were making perfect the temporary repairs that had been undertaken at sea. In less than a week from now they’d both be ready, with Harry determined that they should part company as soon as they’d weighed.

‘Odd that Pollock didn’t let on he was leavin’,’ said Pender.

‘He’d have informed us if he’d known.’

As much a question as a statement, it produced no response from his servant. Pollock must have left because of some unforeseen emergency. Despite many conversations, he still knew little about the American’s reasons for calling at St Croix. He was just about to make this observation when both the Governor’s signal guns boomed out over the harbour. Raising his eyes, he saw much commotion on the parched lawn in front of the residence. Both guns boomed out again. The Danish flag rose and dipped as someone sought another method of alerting the inhabitants. All of which could mean only one thing: serious danger, which in this part of the world tended to mean an attempt to take the island. Painful as it was to make any sudden move, his response was immediate.

‘Get the crew aboard Bucephalas and make ready for sea. Send someone to drag James and young Caufield out of that damned whorehouse and tell Matthew to rouse out his father. He’s to turn him into the trough if necessary, but get him aboard ship.’

Pender was hanging out of the other window, trying in vain to see what the fuss was about. His Captain’s sharp tone brooked no argument, nor did it invite questions. Harry Ludlow had his own well-developed sense of impending peril, honed by years at sea, that was proof against a mere hangover, and when he spoke in that manner he expected obedience. Pender was out of the door before Harry had grabbed his sword, pistols, and papers from the sea-chest by the side of the bed.

The commotion in the street was tremendous, the harbour worse, with every ship firing off some kind of weapon, adding to the air of panic. Men in the tops of each vessel, sent to make sail, were pointing towards the west, clearly the source of whatever threatened, while below their masters were attempting to haul the ships over their anchors. With no clear idea of what lay in the offing, Harry pushed his way through the throng towards the quay. He found his way blocked by a heavy crowd milling around outside the locked door of the Børsenen house, with those in the front banging on the thick wood. The leading banker in the town, he held money for the majority of the traders in St Croix and in a crisis all wanted their funds in their own hands. The buzz of conversation, in a dozen tongues, engulfed him as he fought his way through. There was a great deal he didn’t comprehend. But he understood enough.

His original supposition, made at the first boom of the signal guns, proved accurate. There was a fleet in the offing, flying the French flag, beating up towards the island, intent on a landing. How much was this a threat to a neutral Danish possession? Then the expedition leader’s name was mentioned, and that stood out no matter what language was used. Harry’s already delicate stomach heaved with apprehension. There was no way of knowing how the crowd had come by the information, or indeed if it was true, but a voice had named Victor Hugues as the man leading the French expedition. As soon as he heard it Harry ran twice as hard. Hugues had arrived from France two years previously. He came with troops, a message telling the slaves they were free, and a guillotine. Having retaken Guadeloupe, he’d shown little hesitation in using the symbol of the Terror on white and black alike. On its own, that made little difference, since whoever commanded the invasion force, the security of neutrality did not apply to a British ship’s Captain sailing as a privateer.

But if it was indeed Hugues, Harry’s case was made much worse because of the Frenchmen he’d escorted here. While not by nature Royalists, the Ariadnes had taken up arms against the forces of the Revolution, first on their home island of St Domingue and secondly against Hugues himself when he’d invaded Guadeloupe. Once that ogre was ashore, on an island without a Danish garrison, there could be little doubt where power would lie. The Governor would have no say in what took place. If this emissary of the Terror discovered their identity he’d certainly take his revenge. A man who’d brought a guillotine all the way from France, who had shot hundreds of his enemies in cold blood, wouldn’t hesitate to ship it from one Caribbean island to another. A similar fate could well befall the crew of the Bucephalas: his name and that of his ship must be known to every Frenchman in the Caribbean. In the company of a British fifth-rate and the Ariadne, he’d fought two French frigates within sight of Guadeloupe, taking one and severely damaging the other.

All these thoughts chased around his throbbing head as he barrelled his way along the crowded quay towards his ship. He shot up the gangplank and onto the deck, there to be greeted by a scene of utter confusion. Pender, by means that didn’t bear thinking about, had got the men to work. Normally his crew could be relied upon to perform efficiently, but judging by the way some of them were staggering around he wasn’t the only one who’d spent the night drinking – and this surprising development had robbed them of the power to see what must be done. His dehydrated shout emerged as a harsh croak, but enough of his crew turned to allow him to issue some orders. The primary task was to cut the stout ties that attached the staging on his ship to the quay, then he wanted everything not belonging to Bucephalas thrown overboard.

The deck was a mess of carpenters’ tools, shavings, pieces of timber, and lumps of unsawn wood; ropes hung loose everywhere, left to swing, rather than coiled in the manner in which he normally insisted; what sails he had aloft were haphazardly slung, and certainly insufficient to get him out into the approaches off the harbour mouth; his guns, which he might need desperately in the next few hours, had been struck below so that the shipwrights could repair the damaged gunports. It was as if everything on board made a swift departure impossible. And it was his own fault. The ship had needed so many minor, scattered repairs he’d relaxed his own strict standards, learned when he was a naval officer, and allowed his crew to take their pleasure ashore in numbers that left Bucephalas practically unattended.


The call made him swing round. His brother James stood at the gangway. Elegant as ever, his face was shaved and his hair combed, that in sharp contrast to the Captain, whose obvious stubble allied to his grey face and general state of undress undermined his natural air of authority.

‘Where in the Devil’s name have you been, James?’

The furious tone, accompanied by a bloodshot glare, really a reflection of his own anger at himself, was immediately mistaken as a rebuke. Whatever James had been about to say died on his lips, his look of concern replaced by one of defensive hauteur. His words carried that quality of icy disdain he could so easily adopt when ruffled.

‘My God, brother, you looked wretched. Had I encountered you on the quay I might have slipped you a beggar’s coin.’

‘Where is Matthew Caufield?’ snapped Harry, in no mood for jokes or condescension.

‘Gone to try and raise his father.’ James sidestepped neatly as a trio of sailors rushed past him with a load of planking. ‘I hazard that given his love of the bottle he looks worse than you.’

‘Victor Hugues is just offshore, preparing to take over the island.’ The shocked look that produced, even if it was only rumour, cheered Harry somewhat. ‘Do you know the whereabouts of our Frenchmen? I should tell them, if you do, that it might be in their interest to unbolt that chest of treasure from the deck of the Ariadne and fetch it aboard Bucephalas.’

‘What about their ship?’

‘She’s halfway up a beach. She’d probably sink if we tried to float her.’ He looked towards the harbour mouth, to the few vessels that had managed to weigh. They were beating out of the narrows hoping to take the trade wind on their quarter. In their haste some of the slower vessels impeded the more efficient ships and judging by what was happening in the rest of the harbour, matters were likely to deteriorate rather than improve. ‘I’m not even sure we’ll be able to get away ourselves. But it’s their only chance. They either come with us or …’

Harry had no need to finish the sentence, nor was he given the opportunity. James was already out of earshot. He gave more instructions to Pender then ran for the mainmast shrouds, reflecting on the words he’d said to his brother, which were nothing but the plain truth. But he had no real idea if they’d even be given the chance to escape. If the French were here in strength, and gained enough time to block the approaches, he was wasting his time. Yet if the others were trying to flee, a chance must exist. Bucephalas, compared to them, was a much better sailer, and being merchantmen, quite possibly fully laden, they presented the enemy with tempting targets. That in itself might suffice to aid him, despite the odds against success. Harry Ludlow was determined to sail through any gap that presented itself rather than wait in the harbour for an inevitable surrender.

He was halfway aloft when a thought struck him: Pollock’s sudden departure might not be unconnected with what was happening. Yet surely if he’d known the American would have sent word to warn him: he knew all about Hugues, whose behaviour had become a byword for brutality all over the Caribbean. And even if he hadn’t heard the story of Harry’s action against the French ships from the horse’s mouth, there were enough loose tongues in St Croix to give him fair outline of what had happened.

Harry didn’t often come across people with whom he struck up an immediate rapport. Oliver Pollock was that rare creature, of an age and jaundiced outlook on life with him, one that allowed them to take few things too seriously, including the recent past. A slight feeling of isolation had probably helped, with James more interested in painting Madame de Leon’s mulatto girls than his company. Barring regular discussions with the Danish banker, Børsenen, at whose house they’d first met, Pollock seemed just as unencumbered by duties as Harry. Meeting regularly at a tavern overlooking the harbour, their friendship had matured rapidly until they’d seemed inseparable.

As he climbed the ladder of ropes, Harry conjured up an image of his ruddy face, generally half-covered by the rim of his tankard, eyes twinkling and cheerful under his close-cropped white hair; in drink he sang loud songs or recited patriotic poems, mainly compositions relating to the defeat of the British army by the forces under Washington. Both men were old enough to see that conflict in perspective, and with the gift of hindsight to reflect that for all the animosity it had created, all the blood and destruction, the outcome had been beneficial for both countries. A lieutenant at the time, Harry had missed that war: not an occasion of happy memories for him. He’d lost his commission after the Battle of the Saintes because of his refusal to apologise for duelling with a superior officer. The fact that the man was a martinet didn’t count, since Harry had put a ball in his shoulder. Even the son of a serving admiral had to be disciplined for such an offence. Normally reticent on that subject, he’d opened up to Pollock, prepared to admit just how much such a loss had disappointed his father, even hinting just how much it had hurt him. The American could not know just how that rated him in Harry’s estimation: it was a subject he never talked about, even to his own brother, James.

The thought that someone like Oliver Pollock, to whom he’d bared his soul so comprehensively, had deserted him at such a time induced a wave of depression that did nothing for his overall well-being. His hangover, which he’d temporarily forgotten, suddenly returned with a vengeance.


AT THE GOVERNOR’S mansion, people were still milling about in panic. The signal guns kept up a steady rate of fire, which added to the air of confusion that gripped the whole town. As soon as he reached the crosstrees Harry was overtaken by a wave of nausea. It needed a tight grip on a stay to avoid falling and several deep breaths to bring back some form of normality, allowing him to concentrate on the difficult task he faced. From this elevated position, he could see with the naked eye why some ships had got under way. The French, clearly identifiable by their tricolour battle flags, were some distance away. The ‘fleet,’ with one exception, was a collection of small brigs and barques. But that exception was significant. A proper warship, a frigate he recognised immediately as the Marianne, survivor of the pair he’d fought off Guadeloupe. Certainly enough to subdue St Croix, this small armada was not enough to beat off any serious attack at sea. This lack of strength was very likely the reason they’d chosen to approach from the west.

The trade winds coming in from the east would almost certainly have made the descent on the island a complete surprise, but such a course would have taken them through a zone regularly patrolled by Royal Navy warships. The second option, the direct route from their base on Guadeloupe, was just as hazardous. Shaving St Kitts and Nevis, as well as the Spanish-held island of Santa Cruz, would have provided his intended victims with an early indication of his intentions, if not a clear idea of his actual destination. Small boats plied continuously between the various settlements in the Virgin group, all able to outsail a fleet that needed to stay in close order for mutual protection. But the French, once ashore, would be relatively safe. It would be months before the Danish government, with scant resources to respond, would even know they’d landed. The British, if they saw these actions as a threat to their security, would need to undertake a properly mounted invasion to dislodge them once they’d garrisoned and fortified the island.

Obviously, if it was Hugues, he’d come in a wide arc. Detected en route, it would appear that he intended to take his ships up through the Mona Passage. This ran between Hispaniola and San Juan and was the route for a possible descent on St Domingue. Once in sight of the mountain tops behind Ponce, he’d simply turn due east to gain the element of surprise. While his approach made tactical sense, it forced his ships to beat up into the wind, difficult when he was obliged to proceed at the speed of his slowest. But full daylight, the sight of his objective, and a clear unthreatening sea released him from that constraint. Captain Villemin, in command of the Marianne, had separated and was doing everything in his power to come up, tack upon tack, his aim to close the gap and seal the harbour mouth.

Having engaged the man twice Harry Ludlow knew certain things about him. Villemin was no great shakes in the sailing line and was indecisive at critical moments. More important still, he knew his ship was no match for Bucephalas on a bowline. So if Harry could clear the harbour he had, sailing into the wind, a fair chance of getting clean away. Set against that, Villemin knew just as much about his opponent. They’d first skirmished in mid-Atlantic, with Harry, by some deft manoeuvring, foxing his opponent. Off Guadeloupe they’d participated in a proper battle. Villemin had seen his superior officer forced to strike to a British frigate, in the main due to Harry’s actions. What would go through his mind if he saw the outline of an enemy who’d bested him twice? Would that induce caution, or such a strong desire for vengeance that he would outdo himself?

The solution would have to wait. The signal guns were sending shock waves across the harbour that made his head ache. At the crash of falling, breaking timber he looked down, just in time to see most of the elaborate scaffold of the shipwrights’ staging tumble into the sea. That reinforced the pain in his temples, and he rested for a moment against the rough wood of the topmast. Quickly the images in his mind changed from solid thoughts to disjointed dreams. His head, falling forward, jerked him awake, and he took a more secure grip on the mast. For probably the first time in his life, Harry Ludlow didn’t relish the thought of being so high in the air. Nor did he want to look down to the deck below.

But like it or not, he knew he must. He had a clear view of progress on deck and he forced himself to consider in a logical sequence what he would need to do in the next half-hour. Most of the objects interfering with his ability to sail the ship had been cleared away and his boats, left in the water so their seams stayed sealed in the heat, could be used if required. There was enough wind, even in this sheltered part of the harbour, to allow his topsails to draw, and once out into the bay he might be able to let fall the main course. So he could try the entrance, but he could only clear it if Villemin was too far away to try a broadside. With his own guns still below, he had nothing with which to oppose the Frenchman if he got within range.

Some of his men were already aloft, preparing the yards to take the canvas being hauled out of the sail room. It wasn’t as swift as he would have liked, the sharp edge of a crew who’d been continuously at sea was missing, but they were working with a will that would not be improved by shouts from a sore-headed commander. A glance towards the point where the quay met the beach showed James approaching fast with his party of Frenchmen – the heavy brass-bound chest with their combined wealth needed four men to carry it. They represented another conundrum altogether, not least because they were going to be forced to abandon their ship. Taking a firm grip and several deep breaths he slid down a backstay to the deck, landing heavily. Pender, having seen him begin his descent, was there to help. His Captain favoured him with a wan smile, gave the orders to set sail, sent a lookout to the cross-trees to keep an eye on Marianne, and turned to him.

‘Get a pair of swivel guns and some grapeshot onto the quarterdeck. I want you and a strong party, with muskets, in the barge. Stay just ahead of us as we cross the harbour. If anyone disputes our passage fire a volley over the head of the man conning the ship. I’ll follow up with a dose of grape.’

Pender, seemingly quite recovered from his own drinking bout, grinned at the mention of muskets. His white teeth stood out sharply in a face that already dark skinned and weather beaten had received a spell of West Indian sunshine. The deep brown eyes, still bloodshot, fixed on Harry’s grey face.

‘I put the cook to lighting the galley fire, Capt’n. He’s a useless sod on deck in any case and I reckon that you’re not alone in needing somethin’ hot to keep you going.’

‘The Marianne’s out there, Pender. If we don’t shift Villemin’ll be across the harbour mouth and we’ll get something much too hot for our welfare.’

The grin stayed there. ‘After what we’ve done to him in the last bout, your honour, I reckon he’ll take one look at us an’ turn tail.’

‘Not if he realises that our guns are down in the hold.’

Even that couldn’t dent his faith in his Captain. James, hurrying aboard as Pender went off to collect the barge crew, adopted the same tone, one which regardless of the difficulties always assumed that his older brother had a solution. This was based more than anything on Harry’s own sanguine temperament, plus a not inconsiderable ability to give a sudden piece of inspiration the air of a deep-laid plan. Ordinarily he would have played up to this image, but tired and burdened with the effect of the previous night’s debauch he wasn’t his normal self. He couldn’t begin to appear positive. Even his voice lacked the usual confident note.

‘Have you explained things to our Frenchmen, James?’

‘As much as I can, Harry. But even with the possibility of Hugues in the offing they’re worried about losing their ship.’

‘First things first, brother. They must realise that if he gets his hands on them he’ll lop off their heads. I’d be obliged if you’ll ask them to go below and prepare the guns. I can’t haul them up while we’re setting sail but I want to as soon as possible. If they’ve already been shifted into position with slings on, it will save a lot of time.’

‘What in the name of God is the French for slings?’

‘Damned if I know, brother,’ Harry replied, wearily, ‘but they’ve all served aboard ship, so they should respond if shown what to do. Take Dreaver with you if you wish.’

Aloft, order was emerging out of near chaos, with his topsails bent on and ready to let fall. A shout to the lookout told him that Marianne only needed two more tacks before her broadside would seal the harbour mouth. What he had rigged wasn’t perfect, but enough to give Bucephalas steerage-way; Pender, efficient as ever, had his party armed and in the barge. On his command those on deck ran to man the braces, and he turned to order the shore party to cast off when a hail distracted him. Emerging from the crowd milling around by the last of the warehouses, half-carrying his father, he saw Matthew Caufield. He sent two sailors and after an interminable delay they were bustled aboard. Nathan Caufield collapsed in a heap by the bulwarks. Matthew, gasping for breath, didn’t have the wind to apologise. But the glare from Harry Ludlow gave him enough energy to assist in hauling in the gangplank.

The cables were cast off and men used capstan bars to push them free. Pender had dropped a cable out of the hawse-hole to the barge and Harry could hear him shouting at his crew to bring the ship’s head round, allowing the sails to take the wind. Their efforts paid off handsomely and with the bows no more than ten feet from the quay, Bucephalas had life. Harry took the wheel himself to con her through the mass of shipping still anchored in the bay, surrounded by boats as those masters who knew they couldn’t get clear worked furiously to remove anything of value. Then, with an unimpeded view of the harbour mouth, his heart sank. The whole narrow exit was blocked by a tangle of merchant vessels. Men were stabbing at each other with poles and pikes, trying to fend off so that they could get to the open sea, some of the ships had run aground on the sandy western shore, with boats over the side struggling to tow them off, and all the time the signal guns boomed out from the Governor’s lawn.

‘Matthew, get your father below. There should be a chart of the harbour on my plotting table. Fetch that, then come and take charge of these swivel guns. I want them loaded with grapeshot.’

Harry was racking his tired brain, trying to remember if he’d left the chart where he said, and more importantly what it told him about the soundings. Most Caribbean islands were extinct volcanoes, with the natural harbours formed by the sea’s incursion into the dead core. This often meant that deep water ran right up to the very edge, where the shoreline shelved sharply even where it turned to white sandy beach. The tide entering the harbour mouth, aided by the wind, was pushing the tangled mass of shipping to the western edge of the entrance, leaving a slight gap by the eastern shore. That appeared to be his only chance of making an escape, but everything depended on having enough water beneath his keel.

‘There’s no sign of any chart, Captain Ludlow,’ said Matthew, coming back onto the deck. ‘The plotting table is covered with shipwrights’ drawings.’


Harry dropped his head forward, again overcome by a wave of nausea. Matthew’s voice, asking if he needed help, brought him back to life, and he called for a man to assist him at the wheel. The boy’s father, who’d spent his life in the West Indian trade, had probably sailed out of St Croix dozens of times. He must know it well. Distracted momentarily by the need to set more sail, he returned to the thought once the main course and outer jib had been sheeted home. Matthew, by then, had loaded one of the swivel guns that nestled in its mount on the gunwale.

‘Do you think your father is in a fit state to tell me anything about the soundings by the eastern shore?’

‘I’d say not,’ replied Matthew sadly. ‘What the deuce did he have last night? I ain’t never seen him in that condition.’

Harry felt his stomach heave at the thought. Bile filled his throat and he rushed to the side, sending a fount of vomit into the greasy waters of the harbour. He felt the acid from his guts burning his throat as he replied to the young American’s question.

‘Whatever it was, it has affected me as badly. Be so good as to replace me at the wheel. Hold the present course and keep the bowsprit pointed towards the small gap by the eastern shore.’

Matthew’s eyebrows shot up as he looked towards the blocked entrance. ‘Are we going through there?’

Harry positively snapped his reply. ‘Unless you can provide us with wings, Matthew, I’d be very grateful if you’d just do as I ask!’

Making his way forward he saw that the cable attached to the barge had been cast off. Using a speaking trumpet he called to Pender, requesting that he come alongside. As he did so Harry dropped a leaded line into the boat, then pointed straight ahead.

‘We’re going for that gap and I don’t know if we’ve got the depth of keel to get through. I want you right ahead of me catching the line. The rest of your men to play their muskets on that pile of fools who’ve got themselves in such a mess. Make sure they stay out of our way. And Pender, remember this. If it is Hugues, and he takes them, they risk losing their cargoes. If he takes us we’ll end up on his guillotine. Should they show any sign of disputing our passage, you are to shoot to kill.’

The faint voice from the masthead was just what was needed to emphasise his point. ‘Marianne’s come about on another tack, Capt’n. She’ll have her guns athwart the entrance in no more’n twenty minutes.’

Harry was still not his usual self, but that recent evacuation had made him feel slightly better. There was a mass of things to be done and no time to do them. He must get fenders over the side so that if he did run into another ship he would suffer no damage; he needed some crew in the bows with capstan bars to fend off; more men with muskets to frighten those merchantmen if they got that close. Once he’d cleared the entrance he’d need different sails aloft to get the best out of his ship as she sailed into the wind, canvas that was not yet out of the sail room. It was a time for clear, sharp thinking. Instead every decision had to be dragged from what seemed like a deep, dark well. He shook his head violently, but that only produced pain. At the water-butt by the binnacle he ducked his head right under. As he lifted it out, eyes still closed, he heard the quiet voice by his side.

‘After you, friend.’

Harry hoped he didn’t look as bad as Nathan Caufield. The American’s lips were like scarlet slashes on his chalk-white face. The eyes, under his pale lashes, had a distant quality, seeming not to focus on anything.

‘I won’t ask you how you feel.’

‘Death can’t be worse.’

‘It could be that you’re about to find out,’ said Harry, standing upright and pointing towards the entrance. Marianne’s upper masts were clearly visible now, with the Tricolour flag streaming back from the mizzen. Caufield blinked once or twice, his fuddled brain trying to make sense of what he saw. ‘I’ve no time for the finer details of our predicament. What I need to know is the soundings around the eastern arm of the harbour.’

‘Deep water right up to twenty feet off the shore,’ he replied, without hesitation. ‘I’ve bumped the odd rock as I drifted but never sustained damage.’

‘Do you feel up to conning the ship?’

Caufield nodded towards the French battle-flag. ‘Do I have a choice?’

‘You do. Both you and your son, being Americans, have nothing to fear from the French. You may take any boat you wish and row ashore.’

Caufield didn’t reply. He merely turned away and headed to join his son. Relieved of the need to steer, Harry gave orders to break out more canvas then went forward to direct the men in the bows. The cook, Willerby, his wooden leg tapping on the planking, came striding up to him with a steaming pewter tankard in his hand. As he reached his Captain he thrust it forward.

‘Fire’s a-lit, your honour, but it’ll be an age before my coppers get hot. I did this over a spirit stove.’

‘What is it?’ asked Harry, taking the tankard. The smell that emanated from the top produced a renewed feeling of nausea in his stomach.

‘There’s two things as regards that there mixture, Capt’n,’ said the cook, looking him straight in the eye. ‘One is that knowing what’s in it will do you no good, while sticking it down your hatch in one go will.’

Harry tried to give it back to him, looking aloft to see how the men were faring. But Willerby wasn’t to be put off by authority or procrastination. He pushed the tankard hard towards his Captain.

‘I’ve been at sea since before you was breached, your honour. An’ that is a brew that was given to me by the greatest man with the bottle I ever knew. An’ he had more sense than to argue with a cook when his head was sore.’

Harry looked at him as hard as he could, but he was not to be deflected. He just pushed the tankard against Harry’s chest. There was no time to argue: Willerby was in what every member of the crew would have recognised as his paternal state. So he did as he was ordered. Whatever the old man had put in the tankard was foul, and halfway down he gagged, nearly spewing it back onto the deck. But somehow he managed to swallow it, his face reddening from the effort.

‘Damn it, Willerby, what was in there? Not even Macbeth’s witches could come up with something as bad as that.’

Willerby took the tankard as he turned to stomp away. ‘As I say, your honour, best you don’t know. Though I will own there’s a lot of neat rum. Nothing like the dog’s breath to cure a sore head.’


THE SITUATION at the mouth was deteriorating rapidly as Bucephalas crawled across the harbour. All the efforts at disentangling produced more chaos rather than less. Merchant ships lacked the men to cut the skein of tangled cordage as well as push against the run of the tide and their fellows, to be far enough away for their sails to draw. Beyond that mass of hulls, masts, and ropes, Harry saw that one ship’s master who’d reached the exit first had got clear and was heading south. He called aloft to ask if he was being pursued, only to be answered with a resounding no. That momentary pleasure was soon dashed as the lookout informed him two small brigs, both showing French colours, were approaching from the east. Despite everything which needed to be organised on deck, that called for his undivided attention. He was halfway up the shrouds before he realised that his stomach had settled and his head had cleared. Whatever Willerby had put in that drink was doing the trick. A glance over his shoulder showed the cook, belligerently pushing forward on his wooden leg, forcing another tankard into Captain Caufield’s chest. It was received with similar reluctance, making Harry laugh out loud and adding vigour to his climb. Unbeknown to him his reaction aided his crew. If their Captain was laughing now, instead of being glum like he had since coming aboard, then things might not be as serious as they’d supposed.

Once aloft and settled, it was immediately obvious that exactly the opposite was true. Very likely the two brigs coming in from the east had not met their proper rendezvous. Surely they should have been off the harbour mouth, ready to enforce a blockade at first light, so ensuring that no ship could escape? It was small comfort that they’d failed, since their presence complicated Harry’s slim hope of evading capture: they sat right across the course he’d intended to adopt. Fully armed he might have brushed them aside, the mere threat of his cannons enough to cause them to sheer off; without anything but a pair of signal guns he was toothless. But pressing as that problem was, it would have to wait. Looking down into the clear blue water beneath the keel he could see, by the change of colour, how rapidly the bottom was shelving. Ahead Pender was casting the lead, calling off the soundings in a loud hail. Four men manned the oars, while the remainder sat amidships, muskets at the ready.

He called out suddenly for them to open fire. They couldn’t see from their waterline position, but as Harry had feared, the crew of the nearest merchantman finally untangling their rigging, were poling off from the others. He could still get through the narrowing gap, but if they spun their yards to take the wind they would certainly foul his own. At the crash of the barge crew’s muskets the armed men in the bows did likewise, and their fire, aimed from their higher elevation, had a greater effect. But it was the swivel gun that really made the merchant sailors desist. Loaded with grape, a gun of that calibre posed little serious threat, but the small balls, whistling over their heads, must have sounded

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